Michael W. Higgins is the Basilian Distinguished Fellow of Contemporary Catholic Thought at St. Michael’s College. He wrote and narrated the CBC Ideas series Stalking the Holy: the Politics of Saint-making.
No Western institution so skillfully orchestrates elaborate, arcane and profoundly moving ritual as the Vatican. With the exception, of course, of the British monarchy. Evidence of such mastery of panoply and sacred theatre has been in abundance these past weeks, culminating with the funeral of the Queen today. And there will be more to come with the formal coronation of Charles at some future date.
There is another parallel between the Vatican and the British Crown that is both arrestingly relevant and wildly provocative at the moment, and that is canonization or sainting. The world watched the requiem for Pope John Paul II and marvelled at the breadth of his popularity. That popularity rose to fever pitch as his coffin was led from the Piazza di San Pietro into the Basilica when calls erupted from the huge crowd for “santo subito” – to proclaim him a saint immediately by way of acclamation. It didn’t quite happen that way but the saint-makers in the Vatican took note.
The situation isn’t exactly the same at the Queen’s funeral, although the emotional intensity, the feeling of loss and the impulse to veneration, are easily comparable to that accorded John Paul II.
The sainting of the Queen is not outside the realm of possibility. Queen Elizabeth was Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith – a key fixture in the religious establishment of the land. She knows what it is to be an Anglican. And Anglicanism does have a place for saints, although its history regarding “saint craft” and relics is a fraught one.
As always, Anglicanism found the middle road between an outright abhorrence of anything to do with saints on the one hand and a replication of the Roman system of invoking saints on the other. It created its own criteria: Miracles would not be a requirement, a complex sainting process would not be necessary, and honouring the saints would be a devotional option without the force of law and tradition. A casual glance at the names included in the Anglican Common Worship Calendar of 2000 reveals an inclusive mosaic of holy ones – those in the words of Anglican scholar Kathleen Jones “whose lives had the merit of personalizing theology – bringing the great issues of Christian living down to the human level, and providing models for others to follow.”
Queen Elizabeth certainly fulfills that rubric.
The problem with sainting is the general public misperception about what holiness actually means. Elevation to a status of perfection it is not. Rather, it connotes personal integration, authenticity and integrity. It means placing the needs of others and the demands of office above one’s own preferences and priorities, and in the Christian tradition it means, as the Queen herself said in her Christmas 2000 address: “For me, the teachings of Christ, and my own personal accountability before God, provide a framework in which I try to live my life.”
Her vocation as Queen requires sacrifice, and sacrifice is duty lived fully and unrelentingly. As a Globe editorial phrased it: “In a world of charlatans and fakers and self-actualizing hypocrites...she was the real deal.”
To be the “real deal” is a mark of her exceptionality as a human being, a sign of her “heroicity of virtue” as the Roman Catholic saint-trackers dub it. It means that your life as a witness to the truths and commitments that define you is a life of unwavering fidelity.
The Royal family, the “Firm” as they call themselves, is a collectivity of broken oath takers, dysfunctionality, philandering princes, engorged egos, corrosive entitlement and crushing mediocrity. Such is not the full history, for sure. Lessons have been learned, accountability has been rendered, and an unaccustomed humility is surfacing periodically to call into check those Royals who think destiny, c’est moi.
If the Queen has successfully navigated the ship of state – within the constraints of her constitutional status – she has also ridden the tumultuous seas created by her wayward children. That alone is sufficient ground for sainting.
There have been monarchs who preceded her that are included in the Anglican calendar – Edward the Confessor and Charles I, for instance – and then some who didn’t quite make it (Henry VI comes to mind). There have also been other continental rulers “raised to the altars” that can serve as precedents, including the entire Romanov family, which was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church (mercifully Rasputin didn’t make the cut).
But no precedents are needed. Queen Elizabeth was a model Christian. She was the real deal.
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